Special Project: Director of the Starobilsk MVA Yana Litvinova: We are ready to resume work after deoccupation
An exclusive interview of Yana Litvinova, head of the Starobilsk city military administration, as part of a joint special project of the Interfax-Ukraine news agency and East Europe Foundation “Community Experience”. Its purpose is to show the experience of Ukrainian communities in the adaptation and integration of forcibly internally displaced persons in order to increase the efficiency of the work of local self-government bodies.
Read more about effective involvement with IDPs in the free online course “Adaptation and integration of IDPs: experience and opportunities” on the educational "Zrozumilo!" platform.
Author: Oleksandr Trokhymchuk
The city of Starobilsk has been under temporary occupation since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Russia. What was your morning on February 24, 2022 like?
My morning began with a phone call. The voice on the receiver said that in a few hours war would be officially declared. At that moment I did not even process this information. But I was ready and packed, because on the 23rd, the leaders of the district and I sat in the district state administration, in the building opposite the city council, and discussed that we need to issue summons and ready the military. And this call, it broke my life and, as it turned out later, it broke the lives of many people.
We gathered in the city council, in the administration, and officially discussed what measures we would take, as well as whether we would remain in the city or evacuate.
You lived under occupation for about a month. Why didn't you leave?
Objectively: the legislation generally does not provide any protocol of procedures by which we would comprehend what a government body, a local autonomous governing body, should do in a situation when a war begins. So you don't know what will happen next and how long all this will last, but you hold responsibility for the people, for the collective community. And at the same time, you have no opportunity to show that desperation or fear. You have to make a strong, willful decision.
The decision for me was that I would stay in the city - and we would control the situation. And there were many difficulties: we had covid patients that needed oxygen, which still had to be delivered to the city. The processes of life, they did not stop in one moment, people gave birth, people died. Certain problems were related to the fact that retail administrators did not understand how to organize the work of their shops in an emergency situation, what would happen with the delivery of goods in general.
And the chaos that arose in the city had to be directed in some way in order to prevent a food crisis, to continue medical treatments and to ensure the community's livelihood. And then, together with the managers of the manufacturing facilities, we determined who is engaged in what, by order of importance.
...And on the morning of the 26th, shelling of the local territory had already began. And then new priorities were added to our tasks: to help the residents out of the bombed buildings, to relocate them to safer places, to provide them with necessities, to establish constant communication and cooperation with the State Emergency Service.
I had no right to leave the community, because then people would be left alone with that uncertainty. And now I can openly say that there was constant communication and transfer of information (to the Armed Forces of Ukraine - IF-U) regarding [Russian] special equipment that was moving throughout the city, tanks that entered, markings, routes, which direction and in ehat numbers they moved.
It was like that for a certain time. And then the takeover began, and it was quiet. Because the occupiers did not enter the city council for a considerable time - two or three weeks. They did not even pay attention to the city council building. They were focused on in the Security Service, the prosecutor's office, the police the court.
You managed to keep the hryvnia as a currency for quite a long time, even under occupation...
We funded everything through the Treasury service the entire time. As long as people had the opportunity to withdraw and use the hryvnia in stores, having a supply of it, we made sure that the hryvnia was constantly in circulation.
And it really was rather unexpected for them (the Russian occupiers – IF-U). They failes to understand at all how the hryvnia had held on. If you consider the occupied Markivskyi and Milovskyi districts, for example, they brought in the ruble much sooner. For a long time, even during the occupation, while the Internet was available, all digital services were available to the residents (currently, since October 2022, the residents of the community are completely deprived of this service, because the occupiers cut it off).
We continued to pay salaries to teachers who, in fact, completed that school year, despite being under occupation, according to Ukrainian law and abiding by the Ukrainian educational program, and our children received certificates of completion of education at the appropriate level (9th and 11th grades) upon graduation.
Even despite the fact that a new education department of an obscure republic was already organized and the head doctor of their hospital was appointed, the occupation authorities managed to release people according to Ukrainian legislation, using a certain set of seal stamps from the directors. Many people spoke about the fact that they cannot take back their labor certificate, just as they cannot force the director to prove the forgery: that the document is signed by another person.
If you could name the three most difficult decisions for you during that month, what would they be?
The first most difficult thing is probably personal: how to take my child out from occupation, how to say goodbye to her and how, looking her in the eye, to tell her that we will meet again, because I wasn't certain about it then.
The second is professional: how to control the entire structure so that everything works - both what I am able to control and what I can't. This is what we had to face. For example, coordination of work to prevent looting in destroyed houses. In addition, the Russians made it impossible to turn on the air raid sirens, which would have notified people about an upcoming shelling, and the only sources of communication that remained - telephone and telegram channels.
The third difficulty is my team: how to ensure that no one gets hurt or suffers.
And you succeeded?
Yes, I can say that I succeeded, and in fact, that I can be proud of my team. Among the leadership of the city council, not a single person from my circle turned out to be a collaborator. In other communal establishments, in the structural subdivisions subsidiary to the city council, there were those who made a different decision for themselves - yes, there are collaborators there.
Speaking of collaborators, do you have data on the number of traitors in the community?
Collaborators were among the leaders of the authorities, they remained under occupation, while the authorities themselves have been relocated and continue their work on the territory of Ukraine. And yes, there are many of them.
At the beginning they (the Russian occupiers - the IF-U) did not organize governing states, and they appointed people from the street who were simply supporters of the overthrow and the seizure of the territory. Later they began to "cleanse" themselves of these people - and recruited those , who better fit their criteria.
At the same time, the occupiers encourage people to study at universities in the Russian Federation - so that they can work. The "new government" is transporting teachers out to the aggressor country, and in exchange bringing local teachers and doctors to occupied ukrainian territory. Because they are allegedly claiming to provide some medical services on a new level. Although people who remember how things were before February 24, understand that this is a fake, and the level of their services is unacceptable.
Did the occupation authorities attempt to persuade you to cooperate? Because obviously, in a month, such pressure attempts could have taken place...
At first, everything was, let's say, gentle, and they did not understand why we weren't approaching them with flowers. Because already at the end of the first week (of the occupation of Starobilsk - IF-U), the first protest took place, where people clearly expressed their pro-Ukrainian position.
Yes, there was indeed an attempt (to encourage cooperation - IF-U): they said, let's sit down at the table and discuss. But we had nothing to talk about. Because in order to conduct any negotiations, there must be consensus and compromise. Which is not possible in this situation. The position was unequivocal and unchanged: we are holding on, surviving and waiting for the Armed Forces of Ukraine. It could not be any other way.
Out initial contact with the occupiers occurred, unfortunately, when local traitors led them to our location. They scattered us in differnet rooms, put us against the wall and interrogated us: they asked us about various things, in some moments I did not even understand. The invaders did not have any understanding of how the system of authority in the community was organized. And even when they asked me, who are you, and I answered that I am the head of the community, then they asked me again: “And who is this?” I explained that this is like a local mayor, only it is a more unified position, because this includes villages... Of course, they were interested in where the money was. I said: in the treasury, it is across the street, but there is no money there, because everything is in electronic form, everything is in tokens. What is the next question: "What is a token?"
That is, these people did not understand the processes that took place in Ukraine at all. The war in Luhansk region began much earlier. And these are the people who came from the “LPR” (unrecognized Luhansk People's Respublic) and they expected that we live the same way as them. So when they saw our buildings, schools, hospitals and the equipment we have, they thought that I must be a very good administrator, since everything is so prosperous like that for us, because they said that in Luhansk, they don't have anything like that.
So my position remained firm: I work with people, the community. I was not at all interested in any cooperation with the occupiers. Although at that time I was stil under the illusion that, after all, there must be some legal basis for this communication, because there is the Geneva Convention, that, after all, they must act according to some laws. But later it became clear that there are no rules - neither human nor any international (law – IF-U).
During the second rally, which took place on March 6, at which people came out to support me, the occupant flag (of the so-called "LPR" – IF-U), it's a rag, I don't know, I can't call that cloth a flag, because for me it is not a flag… Instead, our flag was returned to its rightful place.
And when the occupiers began to detain girls and boys, anyone who in some way showed a pro-Ukrainian position, or participated in pro-Ukrainian activity, it became obvious: there is no law at all. They did not even bother to notify parents that their children were imprisoned. The day after the rally, a girl who took part in it and actively expressed her position, was arrested and quickly released, but she was psychologically traumatized, and one boy was beaten very badly.
Do you have information on the number of abducted citizens of Starobil? How many have already been released from captivity?
Those people that we know of, we count in dozens. And those who were in torture chambers and who were imprisoned are in the hundreds and, possibly even in the thousands.
When roadblocks were set up and ordinary civilians - not representatives of the authorities - tried to leave occupation, men were stripped to the waist, and if there were tattoos with any relation Ukraine symbolics, then they were potentially detained and questioned. The same applied to people whose relatives were at even remotely associated with law enforcement agencies or ukrainian military personnel. And if at first only men were taken, eventually anyone would be detained.
They tried to capture you as well. Under what circumstances did that happen?
There was no point in hiding. The city is small, and the invaders would have found me sooner or later anyway. It was just after the rally on March 6: I received a call that they needed to talk to me. They clained that that they know where I am and that I should be in touch 24 hours a day, so I gathered myself. Then a bus pulled up, they put me in it and we drove off. At that time, I didn't even know where I was being taken, and in my mind I had already said goodbye to my family and my child. I made a promise to myself that in any case I would not cry, that I would hold on to the very end.
A man in a balaclava was sitting in the bus and deliberately smoking. This man said that he could not show his face yet, but I would soon see him. He explained what punishments would await me for what had done, for calling people to protest. "We didn't have any complaints against you before, we didn't use any physical force, but now we have a complaint," said this person. In my opinion, according to the manner of communication, it was clearly an employee of the special services.
Then there was a conversation about the fact that I am not ill, that I am a smart girl, because they have been monitoring for a long time. There were certain job offers. At the same time, this person was mistakenly assumed that I have ambitions to occupy certain positions. They offered various positions - starting from a deputy of the “LPR” because I have a good rating and people in the community trust me, and ending with the head of the education department. But I said that I want to be just a person.
I didn't cry. I was released, but again, told to stay connected 24/7. And I realized that this was the end, that there was nowhere to go. Especially when the influence on me was emphasized because of my daughter, whom I was never able to transport out of occupation, because shelling in the direction of the Dnipro began. So my self-preservation and maternal instincts kicked in at the same time. That evening I returned home. I stood in silence and darkness in front of the window. I shook from every gust of wind.
And in the morning, my daughter and I left. It was a story about losing everything and fitting our entire lives into three suitcases. Because when we left, we couldn't take all of our valuables, so I had to ask my daughter not to take anything with us, especially anything dangerous. We passed five enemy checkpoints, and when we reached the first checkpoint of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, my daughter burst into tears, took out her coat of arms on a chain from her pocket and said: "Mom, they are ours."
The story with that bus and that soldier did not leave my thoughts for about six months. I couldn't sleep at all, and I kept having nightmares about him catching up with me and my daughter. But I managed to cope, and I believe that, in principle, we should look for the meaning of life in any situation, not to give up. Yes, it's difficult, yes, war, yes, it is not clear when we will return home, but we cannot lose faith. Otherwise, why do we live in Ukraine? Everything will definitely be Ukraine!
You have already briefly mentioned collaborators and local patriots. And how powerful is the partisan movement in Starobilsk?
There is a partisan movement in Starobilsk, and yes, many people there are waiting for us.
The invaders are trying to stimulate people, allegedly by promising certain benefits, salaries. That is, they created an information vacuum for this very reason, depriving our residents of internet service, pressuring citizens only with their propaganda TV channels, making it impossible to have any thoughts that could influence a person to the side expecting Ukraine to return. People are strongly influenced by the narrative that this (occupation - IF-U) is forever, so those who remain must accept these conditions.
The impression is that it is some kind of Stockholm syndrome, when in order to survive, you start justifying your aggressor, because there is no other way. In order to receive certain services, even medical ones, you have to accept their (Russian - IF-U) passport. And when you do receive it, you are automatically registered as a collaborator and, with a smile, told that you are now a traitor to Ukraine.
How many people are left in the community?
From the so-called "native" population of Starobilsk, only about 20% remained. Before the full-scale invasion, there were 18 thousand in the city itself. Therefore, it is possible to count.
However, it is not visually perceived, because a very large number of people moved in from Lysychansk, Severodonetsk, Rubizhne and other communities. There are also many [Russian] military personnel who are constantly entrenched there, trying to create the illusion of some resistance. This seems funny, because Starobilsk is located in a lowland, so all these trenches do not have any strategic importance at all. Therefore, I am sure: as soon as there is a counterattack, they will leave just as quickly as they came.
Are the people who remained provided with medicine, food, and necessities?
Technically, they have everything. But the quality of what is sold in pharmacies and stores is very questionable. People claim that they are not helped by the drugs that replaced ours, for example, from cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
At the same time, the Russians devoted the hospitals of this part of the Luhansk region as military hospitals. Therefore, many people are generally cut off from any available medicine. They are being redirected to Luhansk, where they have taken equipment from medical institutions of local district centers.
The same is with food products. They are of poor quality and tasteless. Many people have returned to buying products grown in gardens, that is, what the locals sell at the market. People from Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, and Rubizhnoy come to the Starobylsk market to shop, because there is really a problem with food products in those areas.
How damaged are the housing and infrastructure in Starobilsk and the community in general?
Most of the destruction occurred at the beginning of February . Some houses were destroyed completely, some - partially. But today they have been completely demolished. The invaders promise to build seven- and nine-story buildings in Starobilsk. As the head of the community, this makes me laugh, because there have always been only five-story buildings in Starobilsk. To provide elevators and specialists who would service them.. It would be impossible to make such buildings at all, because the sewage network could not handle them.
Have you already assessed the financial damage suffered by the community as a result of the occupation? What amount are we talking about?
If we are talking about housing, then we can approximately estimate according to the current market prices. At the same time, if we talk about all the property removed from the community, then we will only be able to assess these losses after we enter the territory (after deoccupation - IF-U). Although I can already say that it is hundreds of millions of hryvnias.
Do you have a vision of how to return people to Starobilsk after de-occupation and revive the community after the war?
Yes, indeed, once we hosted internally displaced people in our community, and now we ourselves are IDPs and understand what it is like to lose everything.
We continue our activities. And I'll tell you, many people don't understand what we do as relocated people if we don't have a territory.
In the Lviv region, where we are currently temporarily located, there are 10,900 IDPs from the Luhansk region. Of these, there are 4,000 people who regularly come to the humanitarian aid hub, which we opened with the support of Luhansk OVA.
650 children are enrolled in the online school of the Starobilsk community, and there is even a child from Crimea who is receiving a Ukrainian education. This probably says something. Our children are now dispered all over the world, but they want to receive a Ukrainian education in order to return home to live and work in Ukraine.
It is also important to mention that our doctors that have been relocated to facilities in Dnipro and Rivne have received more than eight thousand internally displaced persons in a multidisciplinary hospital and provided them with medical services, since August of last year. The same applies to emergency care.
We continue to work, and we already have the minimum necessary staff to resume work in the de-occupied territory. Yes, I understand that from an economic point of view, after deoccupation, our territory will be in a depression for a considerable time. But if not us, then who will restore the territory? It must be restored, we must return there. And later there will be people, because they will be looking for housing and work. Therefore, our duty now is to develop plans and prioritize steps that will need to be taken by the authorities after de-occupation. We must create a certain strategic vision, in which way we will be able to revive the activities of the authorities, as well as develop, rebuild, and in some cases revive our cities.
Could you clarify what exactly your work consists of today?
You know, now I am faced with a very difficult choice, because normally when you have 26 deputies with whom you can consult, who have different opinions, but still, you reach a consensus. Currently it is a story when you make every decision independently. Honestly speaking, this is not my story, because I always consulted with deputies, we always discussed everything.
But at the same time, without a head of authority, not a single subordinate component will function, because, at some point, a multidisciplinary hospital, a remote school will close, and the whole structure will collapse.
Today, you are personally going through a new experience for yourself - a person in the status of an internally displaced person. How would you assess the work of the local authorities of Lviv regarding the adaptation and integration of IDPs?
As a person with the status of an IDP, I can say the following: whoever wants will always find what he is looking for. When I moved to Lviv, I didn't ask anyone for help at all. As an ordinary person, I went to a CNAP, they accepted me within two hours, and helped me to issue the status of an IDP.
There are many organizations in Lviv that provide humanitarian aid, and whoever wants it will find support.
When I left Starobilsk, I did not know at all how future events would develop, whether there would be any decision at all regarding the community heads from territories that were under occupation. So, in particular, I also monitored the labor market, and that is why I will say that there is work in Lviv. It may not meet the whims or wishes of people in realizing their ambitions, but if you want to work, you will find a job here.
As for the basic problems, the acute and first for internally displaced persons is housing. In addition, Lviv is a very expensive city, where finding affordable housing is nearly impossible.
Ukrainians, who were left without a home, feel like they have been abandoned. Because the first thing that comes to their mind is how to survive, and the second question is where to live. And the question of where to live is directly related to how to survive.
How can the problems of IDPs be addressed through local authorities, at the state level and thanks to international partners?
First, synergy of all levels of government is required. Because the communities were the first to take on the wave of internally displaced persons who were resettled and given temporary shelters. Now even in Lviv there are still shelters, so if a person arrives at the station, he can approach the volunteers, and they will direct him to a facility of temporary housing. It is not suitable for permanent residence, but temporarily the problem will be alleviated, giving the person a chance to decide on what to do next.
And this requires a lot of internal strength. Many people are currently in such a psychological crisis that they cannot find within themselves the desire to live and work. That is why I advise everyone to visit a psychologist, because asking for help is not something to be ashamed of.
It is in every community's interest, to keep professional staff remaining on their territory. I will give an example of Drohobych: they renovate old hostels in order to resettle IDPs and create a certain fund of official housing, and this attracts young professionals to the life of the community.
The state is trying to create conditions under which compensations, loans, benefits, and construction will be provided, but the state machine operates in a very slow manner. And when the state has international support, then this issue can be resolved.
Therefore, even more efforts, work, and support of international organizations are needed on clear terms of partnership.
The opinions and statements expressed in the material do not necessarily coincide with the views of the partner organizations of the consortium and the European Union.
The interview of Yana Litvinova, the head of the Starobilsk MBA, was prepared as part of a joint special project of the Interfax-Ukraine news agency and East Europe Foundation “Community Experience” (https://interfax.com.ua/news/general/919611.html), launched in support by the Stiykist’ Programme which is implemented by East Europe Foundation within a consortium of non-governmental organisations led by ERIM (Equal Rights and Independent Media, France) and funded by the European Union. Its purpose is to show the experience of Ukrainian communities in the adaptation and integration of forcibly displaced persons in order to increase the efficiency of the work of local self-government bodies. You can learn more about effective interaction with IDPs in the free online course "Adaptation and integration of IDPs: experience and opportunities" on the educational "Zrozumilo!" platform